Topic: Gen - Legends
A Legend from Exaggeration
The Origin of the Emu Plume with the Light Horse
In Sydney, along the M7 Tollway, 2005, one of the more controversial pieces of Australian public sculpture was unveiled. It claimed to symbolise the history Australian Light Horse Regiments who served during the Great War. Part of the sculpture was the characterisation of the now famous emu plume as part of the standard light horseman’s dress. According to Westlink M7, the Tollway operator, the emu feathers were portrayed in this manner: “The abstract plumage attached to each marker represents the emu plumes attached to the Light Horsemen’s slouch hats.” This comment is indicative of the depth to which this popular misconception has now become accepted wisdom.
But one cannot blame the M7 Tollway sculptor and organisation for this description as they draw their information from historical sources upon which they relied for accurate representations for the Australian narrative. Tracing this mistake back to the primary source requires an examination of the emu plume as it is portrayed by the premier institution charged with accurate preservation of Australian military history, the iconic AWM (Australian War Memorial).
On entering the Light Horse Gallery at the AWM, standing at the northern end, is a glass cabinet containing a mannequin dressed in the full uniform of a Light Horseman. The shoulder patch placed upon the uniform is black over red, the unit patch worn by the 7th LHR (Light Horse Regiment). To get the story regarding the attitude of the 7th LHR towards the emu plume, one only need access a file from the AWM archives – AWM25 389/1 – and visit the first page to find this letter written by Lieutenant Colonel George Macleay Macarthur-Onslow:
Hqrs., 2nd L.H. Brigade, 5th October 1917
Re Plumes - I hear there is to be an Ordnance issue of these in the near future for the Australian Units in the ANZAC Mounted Division. Could not these be kept for those Units who are entitled to wear them, viz., the Queensland and Western Australian Mounted Troops?
Since the Light Horse were first raised in those states the Emu feather has formed portion of their head gear - consequently Regiments from those States must feel that they have the exclusive right to wear it.I have never heard of any New South Wales Regiment express any wish to wear it and one, the 6th L.H., has the Wallaby fur round the hat, so require no other distinctive mark. As for the 7th I would prefer to have the ordinary band [ed note – band = puggaree] - it looks better - is more serviceable, less expensive. We are being reminded continuously in Orders that every endeavour should be made to save expenses and Officers have much difficulty in impressing this on the men - but the issue of an unnecessary and useless article such as the plume creates a feeling amongst the men that the Orders re Economy are insincere.
Also the issue of plumes means that the men are to be charged with same if they are lost. Under the circumstances I request that the 7th L.H. Regiment be not issued with plumes.
George Macleay Macarthur-Onslow
Commanding 7th Light horse A.I.F.
The letter is very clear. The 7th LHR did not wear the emu plume and nor did they wear them after this letter. Additionally, the 6th LHR men, another NSW regiment, did not wear the emu plume. The 6th LHR men kept their wallaby fur puggarees and so remained, for the duration, under “furred” hats.
The origin of the emu feather as a piece of military clothing was specific to Queensland. Other colonies placed cockerel feathers in their puggarees. The first known use occurred in 1891 when the enlisted men of the Wide Bay Mounted Infantry were given the privilege of wearing the distinctive emu plume. In contrast, their officers remained using the green cock feather as prescribed by General Orders. Over the next few years it became a dress item throughout the QMI (Queensland Mounted Infantry) culminating an in a General Order promulgated in 1897 requesting that all ranks of the Queensland mounted troops adopt the emu plume as part of a permanent uniform.
After Federation, the Australian military was re-organised in 1902. The commander of the Australian Army at the time, General Hutton, issued an order (General Order No. 293, December 1903, Section F Paragraph 10) granting permission to wear the emu plume throughout all the Australian mounted formations as part of their uniform. This order so outraged the Queenslanders who felt they had exclusive rights to wearing the emu plume. The Queensland senior mounted officers went to Melbourne as a deputation to make strong representations over their ownership rights. In response, while there was no change to the order, the commandants of the other five states agreed not to order the wearing of the emu plume. Those non Queensland formations who wanted to sport a plume in their puggarees utilised cockerel feathers as a suitable substitute. For the Queenslanders, each mounted soldier paid for the emu plume out of their own pockets. At 1/2d each, (about $30 in today’s terms) they were quite expensive.
At the outbreak of the Great War, the expeditionary force known as the Australian Imperial Force came into being with the Light Horse Regiments forming part of the panoply of war. From the beginning, it was ruled that only the Australian rising sun badge and a specifically pleated puggaree could be worn on all light horse felt hats. This was an effort to bring national dress unity into all the mounted formations. The Queenslanders railed against this restriction and demanded the privilege of wearing the emu plume during a meeting with the Prime Minister Ander Fisher and the Defence Minister, Senator Pearce. In a letter dated 21 March 1915 [AWM25 389/1] Lieutenant Colonel Robert Mackey Stodart, Commanding Officer of the 2nd LHR describes this meeting in September 1914.
“I happen to be very closely in touch with the subject as it was entirely due to my personal repeated application that the wearing of the PLUME was generously granted by the Prime Minister of AUSTRALIA.
The wearing of all distinguishing headgear was taken away from Regiments on the introduction of the compulsory system in AUSTRALIA and since that time I have been engaged in correspondence with various officers and ministers of the crown with a view to having the privilege of again wearing it granted to the Queensland Mounted troops, for I well know how dearly it was loved by all ranks. My efforts culminated in MELBOURNE where Mr Fisher, at the close of our conversation said "Well, do you think they would fight any better?" My reply was to the effect that distinguishing marks always had this effect; men did not wish to disgrace their little especial honour and espirit de corps was generated - it was a long recognised principle in the Imperial Army. Mr Fisher turned to Mr Pearce and said "I think we should let them have it". Mr Pearce acquiesced. Mr Fisher then announced to the troops on Parade that all the Queensland troops represented at the FLEMMINGTON SHOW GROUNDS were permitted to once again adopt their old head dress. The deafening cheers which arose proved to Mr Fisher what that privilege meant to the men … “
At the commencement of the Great War, the QMI was the originating model upon which the Queenslander’s built their mounted formations, the 2nd, 5th and 11th LHRs, all of whom wore the emu plume in their puggarees.
The first assault on this privilege occurred from the 3rd LH Bde (Light Horse Brigade), a formation which consisted of the 8th (Vic), 9th (SA & Vic) and 10th (WA) LHRs. The Brigade Major, Lieutenant Colonel JM Antill issued Brigade Routine Order No 4, of 17 March 1915. At Paragraph 39 (AWM25 455/59 963) headed “PLUME”, it says:
“Plumes will be taken into use from this date and worn by all ranks when on parade or in the city during the day.”
When issued the plumes were first seen worn by members of the 3rd LH Bde, it proved an instant provocation to the Queenslanders who strongly objected to the men of a non Queensland formation wearing an item they felt was specifically allocated to them. In a scathing letter from Stodart to Colonel Harry Chauvel, the Commander of 1st LH Bde, he complained about this “gross assumption of privilege” of a symbol which was closely associated with the QMI (Queensland Mounted Infantry) and demanded an inquiry.
Adding confusion to the mix was the newly raised Queensland based formation, the 11th LHR, consisting of two Queensland squadrons and the last, “C” Squadron, raised in South Australia. The position of the South Australians in this regiment became problematic since by Stodart’s logic, they would be denied wearing the plume thereby creating a disharmony in the regimental uniform. In this circumstance, to grant the South Australians the right to wear the emu plume in the 11th LHR would beg the question about the other South Australian regiment, the 3rd and 9th LHRs. Since these two regiments raised their “C” Squadrons from Tasmania and Victoria respectively, then it begged another question. Every resolution of this state identity issue was fraught.
Claims and counter claims went all the way up the command chain until there was no one left to avoid making a decision. Knowing the issues and personalities involved, the Generals followed the time honoured method when confronted by an intractable problem - shove the decision onto the politicians who would end up carrying the ire. In the end, the file reached the Prime Minister’s desk, and for Fisher, the emu plume issue had no where else to go. Playing the role of Solomon, Fisher ended his feuding general’s argument by granting permission for all regiments to wear emu plumes provided no expense was incurred by the Commonwealth.
The 3rd LH Bde officers latched onto this as a victory. To circumvent the cost issue, plumes were purchased from regimental funds and lent to the men. If a soldier lost or damaged the plume, the man responsible was ordered to make good that loss out of his own pocket. Later on, other regiments who adopted the plume followed this example. For Antill, the officer to challenge the Queenslander’s right, historical recognition came for different reasons since half a year later his name would be one of infamy and forever associated as the scapegoat of the Nek debacle. However, no one could see this at the time.
During the Great War, three Australian Light Horse Regiments never took up the option of wearing the emu plume. They were the 4th (Vic), 6th (NSW) and 7th (NSW) LHRs. The reason for the two NSW Regiments has already been outlined in the above Macarthur-Onslow letter of 1917.
The 4th LHR declined to adopt the emu plume through the representations of the first commanding officer, Lieutenant Colonel John Kealty Forsyth whose long career with the QMI began with his enlistment in 1885. Since Forsyth was thoroughly associated with the Queensland affectation, he ensured that no other state’s formation under his command would utilise the emu plume. This attitude was in synchronisation with the sentiments of the unionist and Labor leaning members of the Victorian regiment. For them, the emu plume was long associated with discredited QMI’s strike breaking activities at Barcaldine in 1891 and so they were happy to leave the scab emblem alone. For different reasons, the commander and men of the 4th LHR agreed with each other.
This being so, it was surprising to see some 60 years later a movie called “The Lighthorsemen” portraying the 4th LHR men wearing emu plumes. It was a curious piece of wardrobe work considering that the key script writer spent many hours interviewing 4th LHR veterans who plainly stated to him that they did not wear the emu plume.
The latest example of legend taking over the story is illustrated at Beersheba in Israel. Following Anzac Day, on the 28 April 2008, there was a dedication for the Park of the Australian Solider. The centrepiece featured a sculpture of a Light Horseman by Peter Corlett, a wonderful gift from Australia. The blemish by Corlett was to display the regimental shoulder patch of the figure in colour. It is the colour patch of a light horseman from the 4th LHR, a regiment that did not wear the emu plume. While the movie “The Lighthorsemen” may have been a work of historical fiction, that fiction has now become the unquestioned orthodoxy of the official Australian Light Horse story.
Many years after the Great War, the Army adopted the general use of the emu plume throughout the Commonwealth as part of the standard mounted troops dress. This addition to the standard dress was articulated by General Military Order No 90 of 1923 which states:
“Approval is given for the wearing of emu plumes and hat puggarees by members of Light Horse units, provided supplies can be arranged regularly without expense to the public.”
It is from the date of this order that the emu plume became a general item within the Australian Army rather than a piece of Queensland history.
Any idea that the emu plume was a general part of the mounted forces prior to this date flies in the face of the facts. Various public institutions, led by the AWM, have unwittingly propagated the legend. Private bodies have followed the lead in promoting this mythology. Ironically, the M7 sculpture in NSW represents the very state where only half the formations adopted emu plume in the last year of the war. The emu plume originally belonged to the Queensland mounted formations and gradually spread until it was in general use after 1923. Before then, not all light horsemen wore the emu plume in their puggarees but they all wore their uniform with pride.
Westlink Website: http://www.westlinkm7.com.au/LightHorseInterchange-Parade.asp
Robert Thomas, "The History of the Emu Plume and the Australian Light Horse " - http://www.anzacday.org.au/education/tff/slouch.html
Australian War Memorial files - AWM25 389/1; AWM25 455/59 963
Pix 1 – Jeff Darmann in the Daily Telegraph, 3 December 2005.
Pix 2 – Bill Woerlee, 20 March 2008.
Pix 3 – Unknown open source pic – Victorian, 1902 Coronation Uniform.
Pix 4 – Sydney Mail, 7 October 1914, p. 21.
Pix 5 - Sydney Mail, 28 April 1915, p. 19.
Pix 6 – Cover from the DVD box set, “The Lighthorsemen”.
Pix 7 – Photograph by courtesy of Gal Shaine.
Citation: All Light Horsemen wore emu plumes